Veggie wonders from the Alps 

Restaurants in Switzerland are stepping up to craft green menus
Hiltl burgers, one of the restaurant’s bestsellers.
Hiltl burgers, one of the restaurant’s bestsellers.

For those who thought Swiss cuisine and vegetarian food don’t go hand in hand—except for a generous splash of cheese in some dishes—their next Alpine visit will be a surprise. With the rise of vegetarianism, Swiss restaurants are stepping up to create green menus, and their offerings are not limited to just potato and cheese dishes, but sophisticated preparations. Perhaps not many would know that the world’s oldest continuously run vegetarian restaurant certified by the Guinness Book of World Records is in Zurich. In 1898, a German tailor named Ambrosius Hiltl was advised by doctors to eat vegetarian food. The restaurant he opened initially got a negative reaction from people accustomed to large portions of meat, but it has slowly climbed up the popularity charts.

At Haus Hiltl, located near the luxury shopping street of Bahnhofstrasse, one can choose from a buffet option of about 100 dishes on the ground floor or head to the opulent first floor for an a la carte meal with specials such as gnocchi with saffron sauce, baby spinach, cherry tomatoes and pine nuts, Hiltl Bolognese made with carrot, celery and soy mince, and mushroom stroganoff. For vegetarians who don’t mind eggs, one of the restaurant’s bestsellers is the Hiltl Tartare made with organic eggs, eggplant and capers. There are burgers made either with pickled cucumbers or pea guacamole and pimientos. Some desi signature dishes such as palak paneer are available too. The ‘vegetarian butchery’ sells paneer, tofu and soy sausages.

Chef Paolo Casanova (L) and Rolf Hiltl (R)
Chef Paolo Casanova (L) and Rolf Hiltl (R)

The fourth-generation owner, Rolf Hiltl, a flexitarian, says, “When I eat meat, I don’t feel good.” His view reflects a new shift. In 2020, the Swiss population bought 52 percent more plant-based meat substitutes than in the previous year and this number is set to keep increasing each year, according to the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. Last year, on October 1, Switzerland celebrated Swisstainable Veggie Dayfor the first time, where restaurants across the country offered only vegetarian fare.

Plant-based menus are not just limited to big cities like Zurich, Basel, Geneva and Bern, but have found their way to small villages and charming Swiss towns, where the focus is on local produce. In the gorgeous village of Madulain near St. Moritz, which is home to just 230 people, Chef Paolo Casanova heads a Michelin-star restaurant named Chesa Stüva Colani. Its most innovative dish is Io Faccio Colazione, an interpretation of breakfast that includes a toasted almond drink, a croissant, mixed seeds and peanuts granola, and cappuccino made of peas with parmesan foam and fermented chestnut powder.

As Swiss cuisine does not have a strong vegetarian heritage beyond a handful of dishes such as fondue, raclette, rosti, polenta, croûtes au fromage and Alpen macaroni to name a few, chefs are letting creativity loose by connecting with nature. Casanova, for instance, gets inspired as he forages in the nearby forest to gather pinecones, mushrooms and berries with his staff.

He feels it’s not easy to get quality ingredients in the market. “The plate always looks different because it completely depends on what I find in the forest,” says Casanova. For example, in summer, he makes the ‘Window in the Summer’, which is garden greens, dough ravioli stuffed with goat cheese and leeks, with summer truffle that he has picked himself. “Gourmet deserves quality. That starts from the mind.”

The charming village of Vitznau at the foot of Mount Rigi is home to a two-Michelin-star restaurant, Sens, at Hotel Vitznauerhof. “You can play more and go deeper into the flavours with vegetarian food,” says Dutch chef Jeroen Achtien at Sens. Swiss vegetarian fare can get as complex as a meat-based dish. For instance, at Sens, the meal starts with a dish that has a bed of marinated kohlrabi and green apple with lovage sorbet, along with a dash of vinegar made from elderberries. Then there is foam made of yoghurt and damask roses topped with crispy potato and quinoa, finished with verbena and marigold leaves (chew them well to get out the flavours). Ready for a green bite?

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